Hollywood needs China much more than the Communist regime needs the film industry.
That’s a lesson that Disney is relearning the hard way. After transforming Mulan into a Chinese nationalist propaganda flick, and eliminating any objectionable individualistic western content about finding who you are in favor of Confucian filial piety, working with Chinese authorities on the project, the PRC jettisoned Mulan.
Government media is barred from covering it and early box office returns are poor. Most Chinese viewers seem to be pirating Mulan.
So what went wrong?
Initially the PRC seemed happy enough to accommodate Disney.
“I had an army of Chinese advisers,” Ms. Caro, the film’s director, told the Xinhua News Agency.
“In many ways, the movie is a love letter to China,” Niki Caro, the film’s director, had told the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
A crew filmed in the Xinjiang area for several days, including in the red sandstone Flaming Mountains near Turpan, said Sun Yu, a translator on the film.
“Usually when a lot of foreigners go to Xinjiang, officials there are pretty sensitive,” Ms. Sun said in an interview. “But actually our filming process went very smoothly because the local government was very supportive and understanding at the time.”
Disney isn’t apologizing for that. But the PRC jettisoned Mulan anyway.
“If ‘Mulan’ doesn’t work in China, we have a problem,” Alan F. Horn, co-chairman of Walt Disney Studios, told The Hollywood Reporter last year.
Disney has a problem.
The Chinese government co-owns the $5.5 billion Shanghai Disney Resort, which Disney executives have said is the company’s greatest opportunity since Walt Disney himself bought land in central Florida in the 1960s. Disney is also pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into upgrades at its money-losing Hong Kong Disneyland in hopes of creating a must-visit attraction for families.
The PRC is in theory invested in Disney’s success. But different elements of the Communist mafia running the dictatorship are at odds with each other, and Disney may not have done business with the right people.
And then there’s the larger problem with Mulan.
China isn’t all that comfortable with Hollywood making content about its history. Chinese history is meaningless to most westerners, but remains politically explosive. It’s one thing to show giant robots smashing each other in New York City. That’s safe. And the risk is limited. Mulan, no matter how cartoonish it may be, gets into areas that are sensitive. Anytime Hollywood touches Chinese myths, history, and values, it’s playing with radioactive material without really understanding it.
In a country where Winnie the Pooh is banned because of an alleged resemblance to China’s leader, there were any number of ways that Disney may have rubbed the authorities the wrong way without even realizing it, and all the pandering ended up being for nothing.